In their video “Is Kanye West Even Human?”, YouTube channel Wisecrack’s 8-Bit Philosophy series explores the complex notion of the self. They cite renowned philosopher, psychologists, and sociologists in determining that one way in which the self comes into being is by creating a persona based off of what we believe others want to see our selves being. After the release of his excellent Anxiety, which, in many ways, can be labeled the last of the major alt-R&B breakthrough albums of the early 2010s, Arthur Ashin’s full-blown self-projection on both the album and in his performances allowed the media to create their version of his self for him. During the interview cycle for his equally impressive Age of Transparency, he readily admits to this phenomenon, telling Exclaim!, “I would go onstage and give all of myself, but then that ‘all of myself’ became a performance by itself…”. Thankfully, this self-awareness hasn’t forced a change to his music; instead, Age of Transparency is as emotionally compelling and musically creative a work as has been released this year.
Another of the major press points to be gleaned from Ashin is that the album is heavily concerned with technology and its influence. Only four minutes and change into the album, technology has one of its breakout moments: preceded by skittish synths and lilting flutes, a clear adjustment to the production software can be heard, where his voice is momentarily made louder as the microphone sounds like it’s been knocked into by a hand, while the instruments continue on, unabated. His production has always been astoundingly clean, yet expressive, and so this can’t be a simple accident. Instead, this serves as a response to the question of technology: it’s not perfect, and we have to live with its mishaps. That it happens again on “Cold Winds” proves that he’s satisfied with this intentional imperfection as another way to prove his thesis.
As interesting as the concept surrounding the album is, the music itself pulls you in with as much force as any music he’s created in the past. Whereas Anxiety stayed firmly in the lane of alt-R&B (or PBR&B, if that’s more to your liking) an amalgamation of styles emerge to accompany his still-piercing screams that magically double as on-key vocals. The album’s title track, for example, begins with soft, jazzy piano notes and a distorted violin in near-silence until it crescendos into the beginning drums while his voice, while lyrically inaudible, projects the longing that he’s so known for. From there, down-tempo bass drum kicks punctuate a backing chorus, finally eclipsed by hip-hop hi-hats that wouldn’t sound out of place on top-40 radio. He’s going pop on Age of Transparency, but pop on his own terms. After this exhausting list of styles, he becomes heard when “You’re telling me things you can’t let go / This is not right, this is not right” is joined by a guitar strumming thoughtfully in the background. Similarly, on the following track “Switch Hitter”, the beat begins like a standard creeping rap synth that pairs well with his snappy vocals before he volcanoes into “I’m a switch hitter, babe / Switch hitter, babe / Switch hitter / Don’t be scared, no way”. The record explores further styles throughout, notably the opening soul of closer “Get Out”, and if the song wasn’t a full seven-and-a-half-minutes long, it would sound great as the climactic soundtrack to a scene in a romance film.
The Autre Ne Veut romance film, however, would be one in which the protagonist couple spends the glut of the scenes obsessing over the minutia of their social media accounts until the aforementioned “Get Out” kicks in, and they fall in love by, literally, getting outside and exploring the world. Age of Transparency, as a whole, evokes this general feeling: that love, while completely alienating when felt alone, is as liberating an experience as any. There’s no surprise that he decides to duet with a female vocalist to close the album, and that her groundedness complements his unhinged emotive nature. They spiral together into the backing chorus, their message as transparent as can be.